And This, Too, is Fate
written by Sugarberry

Sitting in his office, the stallion stared absently at nothing, his hoof drumming a staccato beat on the wooden surface of the desk. Correspondence needing his attention cluttered the space ahead of him; charts and files were piling up to the side, proof that he had been keeping himself busy day and night, taking on a workload that would snap a less-driven pony. For the moment, however, the stallion seemed not to notice the paperwork calling for his attention.

With a sigh, Tribute leaned back in his chair and rested his head against the supportive cushion. He had been brutal with himself in an effort to get Chiffon out of his mind, but he was finding that the more he involved himself in the business of doctoring, the more his own sensibilities needed the healing touch of something... or someone. He groaned. What was there about that provoking female that had gotten under his skin and was now eating away at him like some unstoppable plague? If he could find a cure, he would soon be a millionaire... of that he was sure.

As it was, he seemed to be incurably smitten with a sickness that was fast turning him into a deluded halfwit. He could do fine as long as he had a patient’s needs to concentrate on; but as soon as his mind had the chance to relax, it conjured up the face of Chiffon with her soft green mane temptingly curling around her features, her snapping eyes successively smiling, glaring, taunting, leading...

“No! She shut me out! Just forget about her!” The stallion jumped to his hooves in complete exasperation.

His office door opened and the pink Prissy stood there, her delicate wings softly fanning the air; she looked about the confines of the office, her confused gaze coming to rest on the disturbed stallion. “I thought I heard you arguing with someone.”

“No... no.” Tribute picked up the top file on his desk and began to flip through it as if it contained the most intriguing information.

Prissy was not fooled. She crossed the room and came to stand so close to Tribute that he could feel the wafting of her wings on his side.

“Tribute, you haven’t been yourself since you went out to visit Blake’s clinic. What happened out there?” The question had been asked not only out of concern for the stallion; the mare had been curious for days.

“He tried to convince me to join him.”

“In Woodlawn?” Prissy scoffed. “You’d be wasted there!”

“Sick ponies are the same all over, Prissy. It doesn’t matter where you are as long as you’re helping someone.” As he said the words, he realized that he actually was coming to believe them.

“Very noble, but you’d get no prestige in that back-country village. Here you’re valued and respected for your capabilities and your expertise.”

“But what good are we doing here as individuals? There are any number of ponies involved with the Grayton medical centers; it’s places like Woodlawn where we can really make a difference, pony to pony.”

Prissy frowned, a wrinkle marring her soft forehead. “You need a change of pace, Tribute. Why don’t the two of us go off to the mountains for some skiing this weekend?”

“A change of pace would be good.” Tribute agreed. He turned to Prissy. “But not to the mountains, Prissy. I need to talk to my father.”

Prissy snorted in an unladylike fashion. “You’re really thinking about taking that job Blake offered you! What’s gotten into you? It will kill your career, your reputation. Think of all you’ve worked for!”

Tribute did not hear this tirade nor did he see Prissy stalk out of the office. He was already on the phone, calling New Pony to make sure his parents were going to be home when he got there.

* * *

Ribbons ‘n Lace had joined her eldest son and her husband at dinner but then had immediately set off for a meeting of one of her philanthropic enterprises, leaving father and son alone in Andrew’s orderly but comfortable den.

Andrew was seated in his favorite chair with a beverage at hoof, but Tribute stood staring out the window into the blackness beyond. Neither stallion spoke for what could have been an awkward length of time, but both father and son were of similar enough personalities that they did not find the silence reprehensible; neither would attempt to fill the void with useless drivel.

For Tribute, this was a difficult interview. As much as he needed his father’s advice, he found it difficult to broach the subject that now bedeviled him. It was not his nature to discuss such personal emotions with anyone, not even his family. Yet, he had to start somewhere. Turning from the window, he jumped in.

“Dad, there’s something I’d like to talk to you about.”

Andrew let out a long breath as if he had been holding it in suspense. “I thought you were quieter than normal. What’s bothering you, son?”

Tribute sat himself in the chair facing his father. “I’ve been offered a new position.”

“I’m not surprised.” Andrew settled back, relieved to hear that the problem on Tribute’s mind was nothing serious. “I read in the paper that Grayton is going to open a new facility.”

“It wouldn’t be in Grayton, Dad.”

“Where, then? I haven’t heard of any openings in New Pony for someone of your caliber.”

“Nothing around here; it’s further west... Woodlawn.”

Andrew leaned forward now and looked startled. “Woodlawn! That town’s smaller than Toby’s Dream Valley. What kind of medical facilities do they have?” Andrew searched his memory for all he could remember about that area of Ponyland.

“There’s a clinic and a hospital in the town; it has the capabilities to handle the day-to-day health problems and minor surgeries. You remember Blake, don’t you? I brought him home from med school a couple of times. Well, that’s where he’s settled.”

“Of course, I remember Blake... a very respectable young stallion. So he’s in Woodlawn, is he?”

“Yes. And the medical center is looking to expand- to offer more services locally; most of the major surgeries are referred to Hayton. Blake hasn’t been able to entice anyone to settle in a small town environment.”

“He’s off his mark with you, Tribute. He can’t expect you to leave your post in Grayton.” Secretly, Andrew wished Blake would succeed in convincing Tribute to relocate; he and Ribbons n’ Lace both had long hoped that Tribute would find a job that could answer to his compassion as well as to his determination to succeed.

“That’s what I told him,” Tribute said, swallowing the drink his father had given him and moving to stare out the window again.

“So it’s settled, then? You turned it down?”

“Blake wouldn’t take no for an answer... said he’d call me tomorrow to see if I’d changed my mind.”

“And is there reason for you to change your mind?” Andrew asked softly, almost afraid to ask for fear of earning Tribute’s anger. Tribute had made it no secret in the past that he thought Toby was throwing away his talent in a town like Dream Valley rather than building up a noteworthy reputation in a prosperous city like New Pony or Grayton.

Tribute did not respond for a long while. When he did, his words could not have shocked Andrew more.

“Dad, I think I’ve met a mare I can love.”

Andrew was speechless.

Tribute looked at his father. “Funny, isn’t it? I never wanted to leave the city and I never wanted a wife. Now I can’t think of anything else but this mare and her country setting.”

“Who is she?” Andrew finally found his voice.

“I met her in Dream Valley at Christmas... Chiffon, Vanguard’s cousin.”

“Chiffon.” Andrew tried to sort out the many mares who had been in and out of Sugarberry’s Christmas gathering. “I’m sorry. I can’t place her.”

“It’s no wonder; she spent the afternoon hiding from me.”

Andrew laughed. “Am I missing something here?”

“She doesn’t like me, Dad. In fact, I think she despises me.”

“Now, why would she feel that way?”

“Because I’m- and I quote- ‘arrogant and abrasive’.”

Unable to contain a chuckle, Andrew responded. “Well, she’s got you pegged right. You can’t blame her for that.”

“You’ve nothing to laugh at. She thinks you’re arrogant, too...” Tribute grinned. “...but approachable.”

“I like this mare. I wish I could remember her.”

“She’s blue, with pastel green hair...”

Recollection dawned. “And she spent some time with Wigwam that afternoon, close to the Christmas tree.”

“Yes. That’s her.”

“She appeared to be quite independent.”

“You could say that.”

“You’re sure she dislikes you? She’s sensible enough to see beneath that shell you hide behind.”

“She’s like a wasp when she’s around me... always looking for a chance to sting.”

“And you give as good as you get.”

“I’m an amateur compared to her. She put me in my place when I was out there to talk to Blake and tour the facility.”

“Well, if that’s the case, I guess there’s no future for you in Woodlawn.” Andrew sounded disappointed.

Both stallions remained in thoughtful silence until Tribute said, “I think I’d still like to give the opportunity a shot.” This statement surprised even Tribute. He tried to explain himself. “Somehow, Grayton doesn’t seem as fulfilling as it once did. Blake has his hooves full; he’s got more to do than he can handle, but he’s happy. He’s needed! I’d like to experience that.”

“And what of Chiffon? Do you think you can change her mind about you?”

Tribute grew reflective, then shrugged. “Maybe if we have a chance to get to know one another on a day-to-day basis, she’ll soften her impression of me. And if not... well, I’d have plenty to do to keep me busy at the hospital if Blake’s projection is correct.”

“It sounds to me like you’ve already made up your mind.”

Tribute grinned. “Yeah, maybe I have.”

* * *

A springlike softness had begun to infiltrate the atmosphere of Woodlawn when Chiffon awoke to the anticipated pleasure of a slow and peaceful weekend. She went through her morning ablutions at an unhurried pace and affixed a pert bow in her hair before descending the stairs and making her way to the kitchen. Her parents, Velvet and Charger, were already there.

“Good morning, Mom... Dad,” the blue mare trilled, dropping a kiss on each of their cheeks as she sat down. “I smell a hint of spring in the air... of course, maybe it’s just the smell of the pancakes, Mom.” She grinned at her parents as she took a delicately browned specimen from the platter and proceeded to butter it and smother it in maple syrup.

Her smile was so vibrant and her mood so gay that Velvet and Charger exchanged a worried glance, for it had not escaped them that their daughter had not been in the best of spirits for some weeks now; and they also knew that the one incident that had occurred before she had been plunged into this withdrawn, introspective spirit was the visit of the stallion from Grayton.

Charger cleared his throat and began tentatively. “Well, the temperature is definitely milder than we’ve been having, but we could still get plenty of snow dumped on us.”

“Now, Dad, don’t be a spoil-sport. I’ve been so looking forward to a change... of seasons.” A dismal look crept across Chiffon’s face for a moment as her guard fell.

Velvet softly patted her daughter’s hoof. “The snowdrops are up on the south side of the house; they surely know that spring can’t be far away.”

“And they usually end up buried under the snow,” Chiffon admitted, unable to regain her earlier enthusiasm. She busied herself in cutting-up the pancake, but then seemed to have lost her appetite. She took a sip of the black coffee her father had poured for her and sat in silent contemplation of things her parents could only guess at.

The ringing of the telephone drew Velvet to the phone, and after a quick acknowledgment of the caller, she motioned for Chiffon to take the receiver.

“Hello?” Chiffon intoned rather listlessly.

“Chiffon! It’s Arabella! Have you seen the paper?” This best friend of Chiffon’s was truly excited about something.

“No; I just...”

“Well, hurry up and look at it!” Arabella commanded. “I’ll call you back later.”

Completely dumbfounded, Chiffon looked at her dad. “There seems to be some breaking news story in the paper, according to Arabella.”

“Oh! Nothing serious, I hope,” Velvet immediately began to worry.

Shrugging, Chiffon smiled. “Maybe the school burned down over night.”

“Don’t even joke about that!” Velvet reprimanded her daughter as if she was still a juvenile.

Charger calmed his wife as Chiffon went to the front of the house to fetch the paper off the porch. “We didn’t hear any fire sirens, now, did we, dear?”

On the porch, Chiffon picked up the folded paper, breathing deeply of the earthy smell in the air from the melting snow and the exposed patches of rotting leaves, dormant grass, and black soil. Yes, the smell of spring was surely in the air! She took a moment to enjoy the beginnings of rebirth in the scene around her, then turned her attention to the newspaper. A visible portion of the headlines read: POSITION WITH LOCAL HOSPITAL.

“Ah, so that’s it,” said the mare to herself as she unfolded the rest of the journal. “We have a new doctor, I bet.” She wondered at Arabella’s excitement, however, until she was able to discern the entire message blaring across the page. GRAYTON PHYSICIAN ACCEPTS POSITION WITH LOCAL HOSPITAL. Even more eye-catching was the accompanying photo.

Chiffon gasped in disbelief as she stared at the haughty demeanor of Tribute gracing the front page of the Woodlawn Herald.

* * *

Charger and Velvet were beginning to wonder at Chiffon’s delay in returning with the paper; but just as Velvet was going to set off in search of her, Chiffon came back into the kitchen. She slipped into her chair and laid the paper so that both of her parents could see it at once.

“Woodlawn has a new physician,” she summed up the news.

Velvet, aware of a mortified look on her daughter’s face, was temporarily distracted from the paper; it was Charger’s whistle that brought her attention to the news.

“It looks like they enticed a high-caliber physician to join our ranks,” Charger commented, truly impressed by the qualifications of the new doctor. He had not met Tribute the night of his visit almost six weeks earlier, so he was not aware that the face peering disdainfully out from the newspaper was the same stallion who had been responsible for Chiffon’s unnaturally moody spirits of late.

“Why, Chiffon, this is the one...” Velvet began, then abruptly stopped. Of course, Chiffon knew who this was. She turned her attention to her husband. “This is Tribute, the stallion Chiffon first met in Dream Valley and again in Grayton... and here in Woodlawn when he came to the house that night.”

“Oh,” said Charger, trying mightily to follow that explanation. “Oh,” he said again, as it finally all meshed. He looked at Chiffon’s distraught face and sighed. His fatherly instinct told him that the road ahead was going to prove unsettling.

“Did you know about this development?” Velvet asked of Chiffon.

“No, Mother,” Chiffon stated, her eyes smouldering. “He told me that he was simply visiting Dr. Blake, a friend from medical school. He conveniently overlooked the fact that he was interviewing for the job here.” Standing suddenly, Chiffon headed for the back door. “I’m going for a walk; when Arabella calls back, tell her I’m... running errands.” She gave her parents a tight little smile, and walked out.

* * *

When, as a foal, life had delivered an unwelcome punch, Chiffon had escaped to the park that was an integral part of the neighborhood in which she lived. The little stream that bubbled through the acreage had always been a soothing presence; and the arched stone bridge that crossed it had been for Chiffon and her cousins and all the foals on the east side of town a haven of sorts. How many times she had joined Icon and Vanguard and Stillwater on dreamy summer days when they had nothing better to do than explore the banks of the river and carry on fantasies of pirates and explorers and fair maidens being rescued by handsome and courageous knights, although her cousins had often found their exploits more entertaining if the fair maiden was devoured by the dragon. Chiffon had quickly put an end to that male deviousness by bringing a strong and determined attitude to all her portrayals.

Now, in real life, she needed to bring that determination to the fore once again.

Standing on the bridge, Chiffon leaned on the protective stonework to watch the water gurgling underneath, already fighting free of the once confining ice cover. The fluid motion beneath her was dark and cold yet comforting to the heated emotions that riled within her.

She had parted from Tribute with the understanding that he had visited her in Woodlawn merely out of a need to gain further ammunition against her as a country-bred mare who could not compete with the aristocratic ponies of Grayton with whom he was familiar. She had been deeply hurt by his seeming disinterest in the lives of ponies in a small but companionable town like Woodlawn- especially when she realized that underneath his arrogant trappings, Tribute was a stallion who could touch her heart.

Now, however, to add to his arrogance, she found that he was untruthful. Okay, maybe he had not lied to her outright, but he had held back a very important truth in not telling her his real reason for being in Woodlawn. And if he found Woodlawn as tedious as his expression showed that night at Hood’s Place, they why in Heaven’s name did he wish to settle here? Wouldn’t it be a dreadful lowering of his majesty to affiliate himself with the town? It made no sense to the usually sensible mare.

“What’s up?” asked a voice at her side. Chiffon jumped to find Icon leaning on the balustrade beside her with Splotch just beyond him.

“I’m looking for signs of spring,” the mare prevaricated.

“Yeah, sure,” Icon grinned. “We were at Mom and Dad’s for breakfast, and we saw the paper.”

Chiffon sent her cousin a burning glance. “So what of it?”

“I guess it explains what he was doing in town that night,” Icon said in a noncommittal tone of voice.

Turning her gaze back to the running water, Chiffon sighed. “Yes, I guess it does.”

“Did you know that Tribute had accepted the job?” queried Splotch as the three ponies stood with their heads hanging off the side of the bridge. It had a feeling of deja vu to Chiffon- as if she was a foal again- and any problem could be resolved with the aid of her friends; it helped her to put her doldrums behind her.

“No. He didn’t confide in me,” Chiffon answered truthfully. “I’m surprised, though, to learn that he thinks he’ll be comfortable with small town living after a lifetime of the big city.”

“Toby handles it well enough,” observed Icon.

“Yes, but their father is a top-notch physician in New Pony; surely one of them would want to follow more closely in his hoofsteps.”

“Not necessarily,” chimed in Splotch. “Look at me... born and raised in Happy Hollow where my parents still abide, but both Lattice and I ended up elsewhere; I couldn’t be happier than where I am now.”

“You have Icon,” Chiffon noted with a smile. “Although what you see in him...”

“Now, now, cousin dear,” Icon shook his hoof in warning although he could not hold the serious expression that he tried to maintain. “I think you saw something in this Tribute, too, if you’d be honest with yourself.” He grinned in malevolent jest.

As a revealing blush burned her cheeks, Chiffon turned her attention back to the creek. “He was nice enough... when he wanted to be.”

“Do you have plans to see him?” asked Splotch.

“No,” responded Chiffon. Of that, she could be sure.

* * *

In the ensuing weeks as winter once again gained the upper hand in the battle against spring, Chiffon did not see Tribute; but she heard enough about him that she seemed to be constantly faced with the presence of the stallion anyway. Arabella had met him at the grocery store one evening, and they had exchanged pleasantries with Arabella inviting him for supper to meet her family; Dr. Blake was included, too.

“Chiffon, you’d be welcome, as well,” Arabella had offered her friend hopefully, but Chiffon had declined.

Chiffon later learned that Arabella was gaining a certain amount of prestige in the community because of her admittance that she had breakfasted with Dr. Tribute on her last visit to Grayton; now with his acceptance of a dinner engagement at her home, everyone knew that Arabella had a special connection with the new doctor.

Others, remembering that Chiffon had been seen at Hood’s Place in the company of that same doctor, questioned her about the circumstances of her acquaintance with such a celebrated newcomer; Chiffon politely acknowledged that she had met the doctor, but was not nearly as close to him as Arabella. When rumor of these innuendoes reached Surefire, Arabella’s husband, he was not pleased. Chiffon only snickered; it was no more than Arabella deserved for consorting with the enemy.

But it was difficult for Chiffon to consider Tribute the enemy when everyone who had a chance to meet the doctor came away with a positive experience. No one grumbled about his arrogance; no one complained because he was abrasive; no one found him unaccessible; no one expressed dismay because he considered himself better than other community members. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Keystone commented on how interested Dr. Tribute was in the happenings at the city council meeting, Maypop practically went into ecstasy over his smooth manners, Morning Dew raved over his professional interest in Droplet’s sniffles, and Bonanza found him an enthusiastic player in the bowling league. Chiffon began to wonder if there was an imposter in Woodlawn. She was soon to find out.

* * *

Under the harmonious cover of the church on Sunday morning, Chiffon was sitting with her parents while Arabella, Surefire, and their two foals were in the pew ahead; as usual, the church had filled with many friends and relatives. Chiffon was wrapped in the comforting, peaceful feeling that worship evoked.

At the Sign of Peace, she hugged her parents and Arabella and shook hooves with Surefire and the foals as well as a number of other ponies within easy reach, then turned to extend her hoof to the ponies behind her. Her hoof was caught and held by an apple green stallion with brilliant blue eyes that searched her own orchid ones apprehensively.

“Peace, Chiffon,” Tribute said, his gaze unflinching.

“Peace,” she whispered back, her strength draining out of her, leaving her feeling unsteady. She could not move her eyes from his until a gentle nudge from her mother brought her back to the moment and she retrieved her hoof and offered it to the next pony down the line, conscious of the fact that her parents were now shaking Tribute’s hoof in their turn. When she turned forward again, she could feel Tribute’s gaze drilling into the back of her head; she could barely breathe.

As the announcements were read before the congregation left the church, Arabella and Chiffon slipped out of their places along with several other ponies; there was to be a social held in the parish cafeteria immediately following the last hymn, and Arabella and Chiffon had managed the preparations and now had to oversee the successful outcome of the event. With all her heart, Chiffon wanted to stay behind to have a word or two with Tribute, but her responsibility could not be shirked.

She had no need to worry.

Velvet and Charger were not meddling parents; their daughter was old enough to take care of herself, after all. But they were not adverse to lending a guiding hoof when the opportunity presented itself; and so Velvet, with her husband’s backing, invited Tribute to sit with them at the social for coffee and donuts. The doctor graciously accepted and found himself surrounded by friends and relatives of Chiffon and her family.

Busy in the kitchen, Chiffon was unaware of her family’s adoption of the new doctor until she delivered a fresh tray of baked goods to the serving table and looked across the vista of the room to see Tribute in the company of not only her parents, but also Whirlpool and Floral Breeze (Floral Breeze being Velvet’s sister); Morning Dew, Stillwater, and Droplet; Icon and Splotch; and enough other relatives to make it a mini family reunion. She cringed to see Morning Dew plop the young Droplet on the doctor’s lap; what would Tribute think to be treated with such familiarity? She sighed and lowered her eyes, writing off any ground gained by the brief encounter between her and Tribute in church. How Putter and Prissy would laugh to see the small town folk treating Tribute with such cheekiness!

Tribute was not unaware of Chiffon’s whereabouts even though his attention seemed to be taken up with the chatter that was going on in this companionable atmosphere. He watched the kitchen for any sign of her and noted with an unwarranted pride that she carried out her duties with an ease and efficiency that kept the proceedings running smoothly; she always had a smile for the other workers and for the guests. He could pick out the students in her class by the confidant way they approached her, assured of a thoughtful word or a gentle pat; even older foals who had most likely been in her class when they were third graders, seemed to gravitate to her to gain some acknowledgment of her remembrance. She looked to seek out the elderly and had a pleasant comment or a warm hug for each of them. Tribute intuitively knew that the mares he was accustomed to socializing with in Grayton would have shunned such a gathering and found himself wondering why it had taken him so long to realize what Toby had been telling him for years.

Floral Breeze and Velvet and other replacements finally came to the kitchen to shoo Chiffon and Arabella and the other dedicated workers out to take their turn with some refreshments, and Chiffon had the opportunity to face Tribute once again. With her pastry of choice in hoof, she made a beeline to her family’s table and was rewarded to see Tribute stand up to offer her his place while Icon scuttled another chair into the lineup to allow Tribute the position next to Chiffon.

The talk around them was flowing so thick and fast with all the ponies now on such a comfortable basis with Tribute, that Chiffon had not a chance to exchange one iota of meaningful conversation with the stallion. She ate her sweet roll and drank her coffee, listening to the varied bits and pieces of chatter carried on around her. She occasionally snuck a sideways glance at Tribute and noticed that he was relaxed and seemingly content. Maybe it was best that they could not talk privately... they would avoid antagonizing one another.

All too soon, the cafeteria began to thin out and the successful social wound down to its close. Chiffon joined the others in tidying up, impressed to find that Tribute was still making the acquaintance of some hangers-on who were anxious to meet the new doctor in town. She noted that he seemed to be holding up quite well under the undisguised scrutiny.

If Chiffon had only known of just how irritated Tribute was becoming, she might have gone to his aid at that moment. The stallion was chafing from the questions and the discussion of ailments (someone always wanted some free advice) not because he found the ponies annoying but simply that he wanted to have a few moments in which to talk with Chiffon. He had to keep reminding himself that he had all the days ahead to come to terms with the mare, but he was impatient to take that first step. There were some questions he wanted answered.

When Tribute finally escaped from the last of the inquisitive Woodlawnians, he searched the nearly empty room and discovered that the cafeteria was close to being deserted; and to his extreme disappointment, Chiffon was not one of those still chatting quietly in one corner. He felt like hitting something. The mare had walked out on him again.

* * *

Spending the rest of his afternoon silently steaming in the privacy of his apartment, Tribute was overwhelmed by the audacity of Chiffon to lead him on what was becoming a wild goose chase. She could be perfectly charming, almost beguiling, and then turn a cold shoulder on him in the blink of an eye. If he was not finding his work here satisfying, he would turn in his resignation to Blake right now and high-tail it back to Grayton.

But even if he could do that, what would he find there? Nothing that could compete with the life he was beginning to love here in Woodlawn where he could take a short walk and be lost in the wildness of a forest or make a phone call and be taken up in the activities of his new friends and through it all to know that he was important to these ponies, that he was making a difference in their lives by offering his medical knowledge to them. Grayton seemed cold and uncaring when compared to the entwined lives of those who lived here.

Except for Chiffon, who seemed to find some weird satisfaction in showing him her cold and uncaring side.

He was just on his way out to take one of those walks that he so enjoyed when the phone rang. He stood for a second or two debating on whether or not to ignore it, then decided to take a chance. It was a rather abrupt and lofty manner with which he said his hello, however, and the party on the other end of the line paused for a moment before identifying herself.

“Tribute? This is Chiffon.”

The stallion nearly groaned. Just the sound of her voice made him realize how badly he wanted to convince her that he was at least likeable; he forgot immediately that he had just labeled her cold and uncaring. “Chiffon! This is a pleasant surprise.”

“Did I interrupt something? You sounded... preoccupied.”

“No; I was just going out for a walk.”

“It’s going to be dark soon; you might get lost,” Chiffon teased.

“Would that worry you?”

The gentle tone of his voice caused Chiffon to shiver; she was grateful that he could not see the effect he had on her. “Yes. You’re too valuable to Woodlawn,” she retorted.

He found that he was not brave enough to ask if he was too valuable to her as well. “Woodlawn can’t get rid of me that easily,” was his spoken response.

“Your patients would be happy to hear you admit that. But, Tribute, the reason I’m calling is to invite you to supper; Mom wanted me to invite you at the social, but Painted Petals, our elderly neighbor, needed someone to escort her home; and I was the only one she’d trust for the job, so I had to leave without talking to you about it. Can you be here by seven?”

He wanted to say that he could be there in five minutes, but he restrained himself. He made a point of checking the time. “Seven... sure, I can make it by then. And thanks for the invitation.”

“No problem. Mom says you look like you need a home-cooked meal.”

“Well, thank your mom for me.”

* * *

It was Charger who opened the door and admitted Tribute into the house, settling him on the sofa in the living room. Velvet bustled in after a bit, a recently removed apron dangling from her hoof.

“How nice that you could make it on such short notice,” Velvet said, smiling at the stallion. “Chiffon’s tending to the gravy, or she’d have come to greet you herself.”

“Ah, so she can cook, too,” Tribute responded, a twinkle lighting his eyes.

“Passably,” amended Charger.

“It’s never been a priority with her,” explained Velvet. “Her time is best spent preparing her lessons.”

“Did she always plan on being a teacher?” queried Tribute, taking advantage of Velvet’s openness in discussing her daughter.

Charger chuckled. “She was set on being a bank president there for awhile in high school.”

“Before that she wanted to be a news commentator,” offered Velvet. “But by the time she graduated, she was set on teaching. The years have proven she made the right decision.”

“I noticed that the foals seem to think highly of her.”

“She’s very good with children,” noted Velvet.

When Chiffon made her appearance, she smiled at Tribute and wished him welcome as he stood to greet her. She was rewarded with a show of the dimples that accompanied his smile, and she felt her legs turn to mush. “Dinner’s ready,” she said, unable to take her eyes from the stallion’s face.

“Well, let’s get to it then,” Charger said, gentling guiding his daughter back out of the room.

Tribute shook himself from the trance Chiffon’s orchid eyes had cast on him and found Velvet watching him. The mare smiled.

“Come. Take your place at our table.”

The inference was clear; Tribute had met with Velvet’s approval.

* * *

The food was good, the company was enjoyable, and the meal was coming to an end when the telephone interrupted the cosy setting. Chiffon excused herself to take the call in the kitchen, and the other three diners continued their friendly discussion of local politics until Chiffon came dashing back into the room.

“Mother, call 911; Painted Petals’ said she’s having chest pains; I think she collapsed. Tribute, come with me.”

The table erupted as Velvet scurried to the phone and Tribute raced to get his backpack; Chiffon had already grabbed a key from its position hanging by the back door and was on her way across the lawn to Painted Petals’ house when Tribute charged out the door. He caught up to Chiffon as she unlocked the front door of the mare’s home, and he followed her into the quiet interior.

One single lamp glowed next to a comfortable chair in the parlor; the telephone on the nearby table was lying askew as it had been pulled along with the mare when she fell. Painted Petals, her face ashen, lay in obvious discomfort where she had landed.

“Pain... in my chest,” she gasped. “Forelegs... heavy.” Her eyes closed from the effort of speech.

“Does she have a history of heart problems?” queried Tribute as he checked the mare over.

“No, her only complaint was of feeling tired when I walked her home today; I should have realized something was wrong because she never admits to that under normal circumstances.”

“Get some pillows for under her head,” Tribute ordered, and Chiffon promptly obeyed.

Tribute rummaged in his satchel and obtained a pill which he slipped under Painted Petals’ tongue, then he and Chiffon made her comfortable with the support of the pillows. Tribute then held her weak hoof in his strong one as he talked to her in a reassuring manner while Chiffon stroked the elderly mare’s mane.

In a short time, the paramedics arrived on the scene and administered oxygen under Tribute’s watchful eye; and soon the mare was strapped to the stretcher and was ready to be transported to the hospital.

“Chiffon,” she murmured. “You’ll... stay... with... me?”

“Of course I will. Mom and Dad are here, too. You’ve got nothing to worry about except getting better.” Chiffon softly brushed the mare with a gentle touch as the paramedics raised the stretcher. “You’re going to be fine, Petals.”

Chiffon’s eyes searched out Tribute’s for reassurance, and the stallion met her worried glance with a convincing nod of the head before he took off with the paramedics. Chiffon and her parents followed the procession to the hospital at the south edge of town.

* * *

Once Painted Petals was stabilized and comfortably situated for the night and Tribute had assured the mare plus Chiffon, Velvet, and Charger that he foresaw no serious problems with Petals’ recovery- warning, however, that further tests would be administered to verify the extent of the damage- Velvet and Charger left for home with Tribute’s promise that he would see Chiffon safely home when she was ready to leave Painted Petals’ side.

“This is a good time for you to catch up on your rest,” Chiffon smiled at the mare as she straightened the blankets and arranged her pillows.

“How can I rest when I’m away from home?” grumbled the mare.

Chiffon patted her hoof. “Dad said he’d check it over tonight to make sure everything’s okay. And I’ll stop by on the way to school tomorrow if that’ll set your mind at ease.”

“I’m making a lot of trouble for you, Chiffon.”

“No trouble at all, Petals. What are neighbors for?”

“That new doctor... he seems nice enough,” Painted Petals said, a scheming look coming into her tired eyes.

“Yes. You’re in very good hooves. Dr. Tribute is one of the best,” Chiffon admitted.

“You might want to set your cap for that one.”

“And you might want to close your eyes and get some sleep,” admonished Chiffon.

“That’s an excellent suggestion,” said a stallion’s voice as Tribute came back to the room. Chiffon jumped, wondering how much of the conversation he had heard. But the doctor went to the opposite side of the bed from Chiffon as if doctoring was the only thing on his mind; as she looked at him, however, he flashed her a wink and smiled his dimpled smile before turning his attention to Painted Petals.

Chiffon inwardly groaned; of course he had heard.

* * *

The night air was chilly, but Chiffon welcomed its bracing effect as she and Tribute left the hospital; she was reminded of that night some months back when the two of them had walked through the snow to Hood’s Place. Obviously, Tribute’s thoughts were following the same path.

“There’s something I’d like to talk with you about,” the stallion began, giving Chiffon a sideways glance as he walked beside her.

“And that is?” queried Chiffon, sensing a tenseness about the stallion that set her guard up.

Tribute seemed to mull over the words before he voiced them. “That night at the ice cream parlor... what turned you against me?”

“You’re not holding back any punches,” Chiffon prevaricated.

“No, I’m not. And I’d appreciate it if you gave me an honest answer.” There was a touch of the old arrogance in the voice, and it set Chiffon’s nerves on edge. She spoke without thinking.

“You’re questioning my honesty now?”

Tribute set a hoof on Chiffon’s foreleg, halting progress for them both. “Chiffon, I just want an answer. I thought we were getting along rather well that night, and then suddenly you left me as if you found my company extremely unwelcome. I’d like to know where I stand, that’s all.”

The touch of his hoof had the same disastrous effect on Chiffon’s emotions as it had the first time he had reached out to her. Her eyes flew to his, and the nearest street lamp revealed the glimmering blue depths that threatened to engulf her. She swallowed, unable to speak until she had eradicated herself of his contact. As she stepped back, she found her vocal cords loosened.

“I was under the impression that you were the one who found my company unwelcome.”

“And what gave you that absurd notion?”

“The longer you were with me, the more distant you became; I imagined that you were storing up information to feed back to Putter and Prissy about just how inane I and my friends really were.”

“Chiffon, I...” He reached toward her again, but Chiffon stayed him.

“Don’t touch me!” she ordered, afraid that her feelings would suffocate her logic.

“You insufferable mare!” Tribute spat, losing all patience. “Would you listen to me... for once!... and stop trying to second-guess every word out of my mouth?” He was angry and would have preferred to throttle her right there, but how could he when she cringed at his touch? As it was, the two stood in the path glaring at each other.

How long that would have gone on is debatable. As it was, a couple of foals and their parents were coming toward them, and Tribute noticed their impending arrival. “You’re making a scene,” he muttered to Chiffon and motioned for her to resume walking.

I’m making a scene?” grated Chiffon under her breath as she continued down the path, putting on a pleasant smile as civilities were exchanged with the ponies in passing. Once out of hearing range, however, she turned on Tribute. “You are the most contemptuous stallion I’ve ever met!”

Tribute brushed the mane off his forehead in an exasperated motion. “Why do I even try?”

“That’s a good question. You go your way; I’ll go mine.” Chiffon set off toward home, leaving the stallion standing alone. He soon regained his position at her side, however.

“I told your parents I’d see you home, and I will.”

“I’m perfectly capable of seeing myself home.”

“Are you?” the stallion asked in his most disdainful voice. “You’re acting rather immature, if you ask me.”

Once more Chiffon stopped to face him and stomped her hoof on the ground. “I didn’t ask you! And I’ve never argued with anyone like this before, it’s just that you... Oh! Just stop provoking me.” She was close to tears and hurried to put as much distance between them as she could; but she could not lose Tribute.

The stallion passed her by, then turned in the path to force her to meet his gaze. “Will you listen to me for just a minute?”

Chiffon lowered her head to hide the tears that threatened to spill over; but she did not try to escape around him, so Tribute went on.

“You said I was distant that night at Hood’s Place. I’ll admit that my mind was elsewhere, but I wasn’t thinking of ways to hold Woodlawn up to ridicule as you seem to think. Is your opinion of me so low?”

Chiffon didn’t answer.

Tribute sighed. “I’ll take that as a yes.” He looked at her for a moment, then said, “Come on. I’d better get you home.”

Chiffon walked in silence; Tribute picked up the thread of his admission once more.

“What preoccupied me that evening was how I could get you away from all the ponies that held your attention, because I wanted to talk with you myself. Why? you might ask... if you were talking to me.” Tribute grinned at the sullen profile next to him, but got no response. He shrugged and went on. “Well, I’d have to admit that I very much wanted to explain to you that Blake had offered me a position in Woodlawn, and I wanted to hear you tell me that you thought I should take it.”

“You decided to on your own; you didn’t need my advice,” sniffed Chiffon.

“But it would have been a much simpler decision if I’d known that you cared... even just a little.”

Chiffon looked at him quickly. “What difference would that have made?”

“All the difference in the world... because the main reason for my coming here was you, Chiffon.”

They had reached the front porch of the house, and Chiffon stopped in her tracks, turning a puzzled look on Tribute. “What did you say?”

“I would like the two of us to be friends; and if we can manage that... well, we could build from there.” His eyes searched hers for an inkling of what her heart was feeling.

A smile touched Chiffon’s lips, but she moved up the steps to the door before she spoke.

“Thanks for helping Petals tonight.”

She was doing it again. She was cutting him off, just like before. He had bared his soul and she had ignored his words.

Tribute stared at her in disbelief but controlled his anger. “I’m happy I was here to help,” the stallion growled. He turned to leave.

He was half-way down the front steps when her voice came softly to him. “Tribute... I’m happy you were here, too.”

The stallion swung his head back to verify just what she meant, but the mare had already slipped away into the house. He refrained from ripping the door off the hinges to facilitate giving her a piece of his mind. Instead, he pounded his way home, promising himself that if he ever had the misfortune to be trapped in the same room with that indomitable mare in the future, he would take poison before he would attempt to be even moderately civil toward her.

And starting tomorrow, he was going to start a list of every eligible mare in Woodlawn until he found one that was capable of showing a stallion a little respect. Chiffon could fly to the moon for all he cared.

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